| Sep 25, 2008

Sept 25/08 - Holocaust Survivor Speaks at SLHS

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Feature Article - September 25, 2008 Strength through suffering: Testimony from Holocaust survivor Dr. Eva OlssonBy Chava Field-Green

Principal Janet Saunderson and Dr. Olsson

It’s not easy to keep an auditorium full of high school students so interested that they sit silent for 30 seconds and listen to your breathing. But sit they did as Dr. Eva Olsson whispered devastating accounts of her last memory of her mother and three young nieces. It felt as if everyone was picturing their own mother as Eva’s mother walked to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Eva walked in the line heading for the work camps.

Ollson started by asking the audience if they used the word “hate” on a daily basis, a sea of hands went up. She replied to this by asking the students to think “I don’t like” rather than “Hate”. “Hate murdered 1.5 million children under the age of 12, Hate murdered 6.5 million Jewish people and 5 million other undesirables,” she said.

Students were then asked to raise their hand if they had ever bullied another student or had ever been bullied themselves. Many hands were raised. She then asked how many students had witnessed bullying and not done anything about it? Even more hands were raised.

She condemned both bullying and being a bystander, sharing a story of her grandson who was called a “stupid Jew” at his school while a teacher stood by and said nothing. “Bullying isn’t the answer, the Nazis proved that. In 1928 there were 300 Nazi bullies and people said nothing would come of it; it’s just kids having fun. By 1933 there were 300,000 Nazi bullies, and there was nothing anyone could do”.

In 1944, at the age of 19, Eva began facing the war she had only heard a little about. After the Nazis invaded Hungary, Eva was forced to share her two room home with 19 other members of her family. She said this wasn’t the end of the world because she was with her family, with her mother and orphaned nieces whom she was going to adopt when she got married. The memory of her nieces stays with her to this day

“I am not speaking for myself,” she told the Sharbot Lake students. “I am speaking for my three nieces under the age of three whose voices were silenced”.

The family and all of the other Jewish families who had been living in the Jewish Ghetto were ordered to pack their bags. Forced to ride in a train car with 100 people, standing room only, the thousands of Hungarian Jews were told that they were being taken to a brick factory where they would all work. “But with its high towers, black smoke and machine guns, Auschwitz-Birkenau was not a brick factory, it was a death factory”.

As the family got off the train they joined the throng that was sorted by the angel of death himself, Dr. Josef Mengele.

“I held the hand of my little niece Judy, but a prisoner walking by told me to give her to a woman who was less able bodied. After she warned me three times I gave Judy to another woman”

The line to the left, full of young mothers, pregnant women, children and older women, went to the gas chamber; to the right Eva and her 17-year-old sister were to go to working camps. One minute Eva’s mother and nieces were by her side and the next she couldn’t see them. Just Eva and her sister made it to the right line, without any other woman in their entire family.

“At that moment I just wanted to hold my mother in my arms and tell her that I loved her. I wish I had never gone to bed upset with her, I wish I could have gone to bed happy with her for the rest of my life”.

Waiting to go to the camp in Germany, Eva told of the dehumanizing way they shipped off the bodies of the dead, like firewood, back onto the cars that had brought them. A man forced to work was praying to God in Hebrew.

“But why, God didn’t build Auschwitz. Man did, we cannot blame God for the choices people make, man chose to murder, to commit genocide”.

The next day they were taken to a slave camp, where they were forced to line up at 4:30 in the morning and then unload bricks.

“Our barracks burnt down because of allied bombing and we lived in a hole in the ground. The straw was rotting because of the urine. We wouldn’t leave the hole to go to the bathroom because the bullies would rape us, or worse. We started to get lice and diseases.”

As they walked to work in the morning a young German boy yelled to his mother “come look at the idiots”.

“Next month, God willing, I will be 84 and I have never met an idiot,” Eva said.

Eva’s message was clear: be compassionate, a child is not born racist, a child is not born prejudiced. No child will bully if they are comfortable with themselves, if they are treated with compassion at home.

Denmark smuggled many of its Jewish citizens into neutral Sweden. Sweden was not concerned with any one race but cared about the whole human race. They did not tell the Jewish people about compassion, they showed compassion, Eva said.

“You can do the same thing”, she said. “You can show each other that you care. Show respect, show compassion.”

When the British and Canadians came to liberate the final camp Eva was in, she was asked if she wanted to go home, stay in Germany or go to Sweden. Not surprisingly she chose the third option.

This is where she met her husband at a dance.

“When we judge others, we judge ourselves, take a chance to get to know someone different. Here I was dancing with a man who spoke a different language, who was of a different nationality, who had a different religion. And he became my best friend, my husband.”

Sadly Eva’s husband was killed by a drunk driver when their son was just 8. But her faith in humanity and hope for peace and strength in the human character has helped her to go on with a life in spite of the intolerance, hate, destruction and pain she has witnessed.

She asked the SLHS students in the audience to “never flee from the memory of this injustice, to never let a child die from evil hands, never. Please don’t be a bystander”.

As she finished the students seemed to have woken up from their silent interest, and were wet-cheeked as they gave Dr. Eva Olsson a standing ovation.

As the auditorium was being cleaned up, I thanked Eva for sharing her testimony with us, for working through her suffering and reminding us of a history that must never be repeated, for showing us the remarkable strength of the human spirit.

She hugged me and told me that just one person being affected by her speech meant that one child did not die in vain, that one student being more compassionate is why she continues.

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